Monday, December 27, 2010

book review: The Women Jefferson Loved by Virginia Scharff

I confess...I'm not a history buff (in large part b/c my fact-memory is weak), but I've always had an interest in the often untold stories of the women whom history tends to overlook.  Thus, I was interested in The Women Jefferson Loved, a recent book by Virginia Scharff, and selected it as one to receive from Harper (in return for a promise to review it but w/ no limits on what I write).  The book is focused on the home life of Thomas Jefferson and the women he cared for including his mother, his wife, Sally Hemmings (a slave w/ whom he had a long relationship), his daughters (only two lived to adulthood), and a bit on his granddaughters.

I really enjoyed this book.  It showed that the women who supported Jefferson lived complex and difficult lives.  Many women in his immediate circle perished in childbirth and the women often lived with the debts that his position entailed.  I had been aware of the Hemmings story but learned a lot more about it...I hadn't realized that the relationship developed only after his wife's death, that Sally was also his wife's half-niece, and that she was about 30 years his junior.  Throughout the book, the author notes the complexities of slavery including the shadow families that were so common and the balancing of ideals with the reality of the times. 

There are a lot of names here, which tends to be hard for me in any book.  The author anticipated this, using nicknames to help distinguish different women and providing both a genealogy chart and a "cast of characters".  I very much appreciated these additions and they contributed to making the book an enjoyable and approachable read.  Definitely recommend to anyone with an interest in women's history...not the women who made the headlines but rather the women behind (and overlooked by) the well-known stories of historic men.  Four stars (of five...I rarely give five).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Sally Hemmings was not the niece of Martha Wayles Jefferson but her half-sister.